Curious thing about “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a film about chefs and restaurants and the transformational power of food: At no point did it make me feel hungry.
Not even when the ambitious, talented young Indian chef auditions for the stern French restaurateur, Madame Mallory, by teaching her to imbue an omelet with the exoticism of the East – the nearly pornographic cracking of the eggs, the slow-motion scattering of herbs, the wry smile with which he encourages her to bring a bit more hot pepper to their project, the erotic bump she gives the pan to free the eggs, and finally, with eyes closed, the taste. “You have it,” says Madame Mallory rapturously to young Hassan, who acknowledges that he knows his power.
Neither this scene nor the markets full of absurdly beautiful produce, nor the tables spread with eye-popping comestibles, nor the beautiful cheeses and pickles and silky sauces featured throughout the film made me feel even a mite peckish. I felt other things, certainly – particularly that wistful longing director Lasse Hallstrom (“My Life as a Dog,” “Chocolat”) specializes in evoking – but never hunger. The food in this movie is too freighted with emotional significance to be eaten. It would be like eating old love letters, or that hat of your late father’s you keep to remember him by.
In the film, the Kadams, who run a successful and lively restaurant in Mumbai, have been driven out of business and abroad by tragedy. When we meet them, the patriarch (played by Om Puri) has trundled his five children (three adults, two little ones) into the sort of vintage station wagon you would expect to see in a Wes Anderson film. They drive this vehicle around Europe until the brakes fail outside a picturesque village in the south of France.
Their first night in town, the family is taken in and fed by the winsome Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Sparks fly immediately between Hassan (Manish Dayal) and Marguerite, so it is no surprise when Papa announces that “maybe brakes break for a reason.” This is the place where they will open a new restaurant, led in the kitchen by Hassan, who has a special gift inherited from his late mother.
As it happens, there is a disheveled restaurant for sale across the road from the restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), a woman who seems constructed entirely of the sophisticated parochialism that makes being French so stylish and solipsistic. She is disturbed that the atmosphere in which her Michelin-starred establishment abides might be corrupted by an eatery that she characterizes as “fast food” and “something ethnic.” War breaks out between Papa and Madame Mallory, while Hassan and Marguerite – who naturally works as a sous chef in Madame Mallory’s kitchen – sow the seeds of the happy ending that the price of admission to a movie like this absolutely guarantees.
There must be obstacles in the path to that happy ending, of course, and here the film distinguishes itself. It would have been simple enough to delay the union of Hassan and Marguerite by fabricating some sort of tragicomic misunderstanding, or by permitting the skirmishes between the elders to infect their relationship.
But the distance that opens between Hassan and Marguerite has a far more subtle cause. His ambition and talent lead to his creating and seizing an opportunity that frustrates her, because he has leap-frogged her professionally and because he will clearly achieve things she is not equipped to match. She is jealous, and he is put off by her jealousy. That is a very adult conflict, much more real and complicated than one might expect in a film that, up to this point, has been lovely to watch and entertaining but not particularly deep.
Marguerite and Hassan skip past that tension eventually, but it is never addressed or resolved, and one wonders how and when it will resurface in their relationship.
The film is based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais. Its producers include Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, whose admiration for the book helped to make it a best-seller. Her brand no doubt will make this pleasant film a commercial success, too.
The hundred-foot journey
Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Running time: 122 minutes
Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, violence, language and brief sensuality.
The Lowdown: A family from Mumbai opens a restaurant across the street from a celebrated French chef.